Spy 100, #22: Reilly: Ace of Spies

For those of you who were wondering what the hell happened to the Spy 100 Project (all three or four of you): well, Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983) happened. This lengthy miniseries is one of the list’s cheats —  a twelve-episode run treated as a single entry — and alas, while it is earnest, historically informative, and well produced, I found it a real slog.

The eponymous hero is a legendary real-world figure of spydom, Sidney Reilly, whose daring career spanned over two decades in the early twentieth century. Sam Neill stars as Reilly, a Russian-born émigré who begins his politically charged life as a freelance spy working for the British in Russia. His further missions carry him from Manchuria to Germany, from London to Paris to Moscow, in an astonishingly long and storied career that spans multiple wars and conflicts. Along the way, he steals secret documents, manipulates friend and enemy alike, seduces many women, foments revolutions, and ultimately goes toe-to-toe with Stalin’s secret police.

To be fair, Reilly: Ace of Spies has a lot going for it: a classy Masterpiece Theater vibe, impressive period production values, informative docudrama-style narration, and generally fine performances. But for all the historical interest and complicated intrigue, I found it ponderous, unevenly paced at best and sluggish at worst, distancing, drowsy, and overlong. Neill centers the proceedings nicely, bringing subtle, charismatic flair to his Bondian anti-hero. Indeed, Reilly is very much the proto-Bond, but unfortunately this renders him not particularly likable, another factor that kept me at an arm’s length. Meanwhile, the world-shaking events on display, which should be quite interesting, simply aren’t dramatized all that interestingly.

I can see why a history magazine would rank this series so prominently. After all, there’s considerably more history on display here than in most of the list’s selections. I do think it fulfills the extended biopic mission it sets for itself. But it failed to enthrall me, to say the least.

3 thoughts on “Spy 100, #22: Reilly: Ace of Spies”

    1. I thought you might have been one of the few… 🙂 Did I already ask you about Burn Notice? I feel like I sampled an episode and didn’t get hooked.

      1. Burn Notice is pretty silly, but I enjoy it.

        For it to work, I think you have to enjoy the voice-overs, where Michael is explaining what the issues are for whatever they’re trying to do. But those are pretty good—touching on things that I know to be true.

        For example, it’s mentioned from time to time that a bug needs a power source, and if it’s going to transmit over any distance, it needs a big power source. And if the power source is a battery, you have to go back and change the the battery at regular intervals. Various solutions are explored over the series.

        Another example is safe cracking, where again various strategies are explored over the course of the series, including my favorite, which is to blast the safe free from the wall, load it into a truck, drive off with it, and cut it open at leisure.

        There are annoyances, such as the repeated theme of bad guys getting some sort of hold over one or another of the gang and forcing them to do bad things. There are many times where you come away thinking, “If they’d just kill their enemy, they’d save themselves a world of trouble,” only to have them go on for 6, 8, 10 episodes submitting, and only then take some sort of drastic action.

        On the other hand, the moral center to the story, where they do refrain from killing people (except in self-defense) is pretty satisfying. I just find the level of motivation to get drastic action varies a bit from time to time, depending on what the writer needs to get the episode to work.

        Still, as I say, I enjoy it a lot.

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